Stunning invention could rock lobster world

A device that kills lobsters with electric shocks has been developed into an industrial-scale model by a Charlottetown company, and the pressure is on processors in Europe to buy it.

A device that kills lobsters with electric shocks has been developed into an industrial-scale model by a Charlottetown company, and the pressure is on processors in Europe to buy it.

The CrustaStun, billed as a more humane way to kill lobsters, was originally launched with a home and restaurant version in 1999 by British inventor Simon Buckhaven. Buckhaven says the shock makes lobsters insensible for pain-free boiling.

In 2003 Charlottetown Metal Products, which does a lot of work in the U.K. and Ireland, was contacted about developing a machine that could be used by processors. CMP now has on the market a machine that can process 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of lobster an hour. Two of these are now being used by crab processors in the U.K.

"There were pressures on them from upscale dining room and grocery chains in the U.K. and London to humanely process seafood," Wendell MacDonald, general manager of Charlottetown Metal Products told CBC News.

"Those two processors were, I shouldn't say forced but, very strongly persuaded to buy this system or they would lose their clients."

Marketing for the CrustaStun on the company's website makes claims beyond humane treatment for lobsters. It also suggests "it anticipates humane slaughter legislation currently being considered throughout Europe," and even that it improves the quality of the meat by reducing stress.

"We keep getting enquiries," said MacDonald.

"As I say there's a lot of pressure on them to humanely process seafood prior to it being eaten. This movement is coming on very rapidly, so yes, I would say in a few years it would be a pretty steady product line."

A costly option

Both the individual stunner and the industrial model work by immersing the lobster in brine and running a lethal current through it. The company says the lobsters are rendered insensible instantly, and are dead 10 seconds later.

The large machines for processing plants cost about $100,000. The smaller CrustaStun goes for about $4,000.

While the pressure is on in the U.K. and Europe, in North America old-fashioned methods are still the norm. At Charlottetown's Culinary Institute of Canada, which prides itself on being on the cutting edge of food preparation, research and development, chef Allan Williams still needs some convincing that the CrustaStun is a necessary innovation.

"I'd like to see some of the studies about whether the lobster suffers pain, or how long it does survive once it's put in boiling water. I would assume that it's killed instantly," said Williams.

"They still move around in the water but it could be just nerves, like the chicken with its head cut off that will still run up the wood pile."

No clear answers from science

Dr. Spencer Greenwood, a research scientist at the Atlantic Veterinary College's Lobster Science Centre, says the question of whether lobsters feel pain is a difficult one. Greenwood says pain is very subjective, and even comparing the pain felt by two different people can be problematic.

"I don't think we have a really good sense of it right now," Greenwood said.

"We know that there's a good nervous system there, a complex nervous system adapted to lobsters in their natural environment."

But while the lobster nervous system is complex, it is much more like an insect's than a mammal's. To illustrate how difficult it is to determine how a lobster might feel pain, Greenwood points out that a lobster can, if it chooses, allow a claw or leg to fall off in order to escape a predator.

"An animal that has the ability to drop an arm or a leg, will it experience pain in the same way you'd expect us to?" he said.

Greenwood said the CrustaStun is not the only product on the market that claims to have developed a more humane way of killing lobsters. There is also a high pressure system making the same argument. In addition to the whole question of whether lobsters feel something humans might describe as pain at all, Greenwood said these companies add a further complexity of whether lobsters might feel more pain from being boiled, electrocuted, or put under pressure.

Both companies claim their methods take seconds to kill, but Greenwood points out thata lobster that's been in a freezer for an hourand is put straight into boiling water takes seconds to die as well. The whole question of what is acceptable, he said, remains unasked.